There are more than 20,000 types of orchids in the world, and only one produces the second most expensive flavoring, behind saffron. Native to Mexico, it took some patient science to recreate the symbiotic relationship between this rare plant species (Vanilla planifolia) the vine it grows on and the bee that pollinates it, allowing production to extend around the equator. Most cooks savor the long black pod for its “peculiar bouquet,” as described in the Book of Spices by Frederic Rosengarten.
There is no match for real vanilla flavoring. In pods, or as extract, only 100% pure will do. To taste artificial vanilla flavoring is the giveaway of a bakery or diner cutting corners. Like “pancake syrup” will never, ever be pure maple syrup, so to with vanilla. Pay for the real thing and savor it.
Let’s talk whole pods. A single pod can go a long way to flavoring custards and ice cream bases by steeping them in the saucepan. Often recipes will ask you to split the bean lengthwise and use the side of the blade to scrape out the teeny black seeds from the center. If this feels unwieldy, cut the bean across the short way first to have more control. Those little black seeds are the flecks you see in true vanilla ice cream.
Once the pod has done its job infusing whatever recipe you are making and the black seeds are off in the ice cream maker or in the cream puff, give the pod a rinse under cold water to get the custard off, gently blot dry with a paper towel and pack it in a small mason jar filled with about 2 cups of sugar (granulated or powdered) or sea salt.
Give the jar a shake to evenly distribute the beans and let sit for a week or two. Now, you have infused condiments that just can’t be store bought. Try the simple granulated vanilla sugar stirred into your morning coffee or dust your french toast with the powdered vanilla sugar. Proceed as usual in baked recipes and omit the vanilla extract or leave it in for extra vanila-ness. Finish a squash soup or a grilled pork chop with the vanilla salt for a subtle, easy-exotic twist.
Vanilla extract is the liquid form of the flavoring. Sometimes called Bourbon Vanilla, the word Bourbon refers to the island Île Bourbon in the Indian Ocean, now called Reunion. Bourbon vanilla collectively refers to vanillas commercially produced around the Indian Ocean Islands, including Madagascar. It doesn’t mean that the vanilla is steeped in bourbon, although that too is delicious.
To make your own vanilla extract, split a pod or two lengthwise and repeat the above steps for sugar or salt, but use 2 cups of vodka instead, and let sit a month or two until the vodka is a deep, rich brown. Add sparingly to cocktails to get a delightful taste of autumn.
Vanilla beans cost about $4 each and are worth every penny. Available at fancy schmancy stores like Dean & Deluca and recently, in my humble Stop & Shop in rural New Jersey.